Wilmington, NC – Tucked away behind the Oakdale Cemetery is the little neighborhood of Love Grove. Once home to slaves of the Love Family, the area is now home to more than 60 families, many of them elderly. Willie Davis lives at the end of King Street with his wife of 54 years. He's spent his entire life in Love Grove, and says it's the best neighborhood in Wilmington.
[Davis] Everybody knows everybody. I can leave my tools out in the yard, bicycles, anything in the yard, nobody won't bother them. I get up that morning, they'll still be in the same place I put them.
Davis recalls that decades ago, a train ran up and down King Street serving businesses at the north end of the neighborhood. Carolina Forest made plywood, sending up clouds of sawdust that would settle out on freshly hung laundry. Southern Box made wood paneling and furniture. For many years, the Davis family earned a living there.
[Davis] Yeah, I worked back there for 34 years, started at 65 cents an hour. My daddy worked back there. He started at 17 cents an hour.
All that's left of Southern Box now is a smokestack and some abandoned buildings. Recently, developers purchased the 25-acre site to build low-income housing. They say it will give subsidized renters an opportunity to own their own home.
Love Grove residents oppose the new development, and say they are being ignored by city officials who support it. Reverend James Utley is the neighborhood spokesman.
[Utley] I'm in ministry. There's a saying in Proverbs, 'Come let us reason together.' Well, evidently they're leaving us out of the reasoning process.
Residents say adding people to the neighborhood will bring many problems. Love Grove is like an island, surrounded by creeks, wetlands, railroad tracks, and old landfills. The only road in and out is at the south end of the neighborhood, and that road is crossed by railroad tracks.
A train serving the State Port makes two passes along these tracks each night. It travels less than 10 mph, and at its longest can exceed 80 car lengths. Although the train rarely stops while crossing the road, residents say it has blocked neighborhood access for more than an hour.
Because unrestricted access is critical during emergencies, residents worry that adding more people to Love Grove will worsen an existing problem. They also worry about the train carrying hazardous materials, and the potential for derailment and disaster.
Residents are still resentful that eight years ago, the City promised to build a second access road to the west, but was blocked by the railroad track owner. City officials say building a second access today will be difficult and expensive, costing well over a million dollars. Willie Davis says Love Grove has been shortchanged long enough.
[Davis] They can spend 17 million out there on a park, out there on 17 extension, and they can't even build a road in Love Grove.
Residents also worry about health risks, especially if more children move to Love Grove. There's an inactive landfill adjacent to the development site that the City hopes to turn into greenspace. It's being tested now for contamination. And though an underground gasoline storage tank was removed in 1998, the groundwater beneath the site remains contaminated.
The State says the Southern Box site is fine for residential development as long as no groundwater wells are dug. Reverend Utley questions that assessment.
[Utley] The individuals that have made that decision that it's all right to build as long as you don't put in any ground wells, let's give them the deeds to the property and tell them, 'You have a free house in Love Grove,' and see how many of them will be planning to pack a U-haul and move out here.
Most importantly, residents say the new development will change the character of the Love Grove community. They worry that developers will try to maximize their profits by packing in multi-family units instead of building single-family homes. And given the access and contamination concerns, they predict there will be a lot more home renters than homeowners.
To move the project forward, the developer recently requested the site be rezoned from light manufacturing to R-3, or high-density residential. Because a site plan describing the development wasn't required, many felt such a straight rezoning would give the developer too much control and the City too little.
Mark Saulnier is chairman of the Planning Commission, which makes land use recommendations to the City Council. He recalls three years ago when the Planning Commission opposed a similar rezoning request for the Southern Box property, even with a site plan included. He also opposes the current request because residents' concerns still haven't been addressed, and because there are too many unknowns.
[Saulnier] In a straight rezoning, we have to look at what would be the most intense thing they could do there, which would be duplexes, triplexes, and quad-plexes. They potentially could be mostly rentals, which tends to be less stable for the community because they don't necessarily have a vested interest in the community if they're renting.
Although the Planning Commission unanimously opposed the rezoning, the City Council approved it on August 3rd. Laura Padgett is one City Council member who voted for approval. Padgett says land is scarce, and it's inevitable that the developers will do something with the Southern Box site. She says the rezoning decision will actually protect the character of the neighborhood.
[Padgett] Logically, you have to presume that if they don't get the rezoning, they're going to begin to market it as light manufacturing, and there are a number of uses that are allowed by right which we would have no say over.
Padgett says that tax revenues generated by the residential development could help make a second access into Love Grove a reality. And why it would have been nice to have a mixed-use proposal that included homes and jobs, that wasn't the choice presented to the City Council.
Love Grove residents still aren't buying it. They say such a loosely defined project would never have been approved in another neighborhood without the consent of the community. They worry that because the Mayor and other City Council members have had personal business relationships with these developers, they can't be objective. Laura Padgett disagrees.
[Padgett] The fact that some of the developers might have had business dealings with individuals on Council in the past, really can't be taken as a conflict of interest on a totally disassociated situation. I would hope that Council members would make decisions based on the merit of the proposal and not who they know or what they know.
Love Grove residents have until early October to appeal the rezoning decision.
For WHQR public radio in Wilmington, I'm Steve Meador.